Alex Zwerdling

  • The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Theory by Patrick Parrinder
    Harvester, 225 pp, £28.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 7108 1129 2

When the history of late 20th-century literary culture comes to be written, the extraordinary vogue of metatheoretical works will surely require explanation. What can account for the obsessive concern with theory in cultural commentary over the last twenty years? Why has methodological self-consciousness become a more pressing issue for literary critics than the traditional labour of elucidating literary works? Why are names like Barthes, Derrida, Benjamin, Foucault, Lukacs, Kristeva, Althusser, Lacan, Habermas, Bloom, Jameson, invested with the kind of glamour that literary intellectuals used to accord only to the great imaginative writers of their own time? Why have these masters produced so many eager disciples? Why has Literary Theory (thus capitalised) become an independent field rather than a serviceable set of working assumptions that enables critical commentary?

In Patrick Parrinder’s account of this major change in contemporary culture, the theorist is seen as a presumptuous upstart who has forgotten his place. The traditional role of the critic is to act as middleman between author and reader – ‘making sense’ of difficult or elusive novels, poems and plays, explaining, evaluating, showing the significance of. In this older dispensation, a firm pecking order is in place: the major author, the great work, are clearly more important than the critical commentator, and the subservient critic accepts this position with becoming modesty, a sense that it is not only inevitable but fitting. In Parrinder’s words, ‘the critic or theorist plays a secondary or subordinate role, as expositor, advocate, and archivist of the poet’s thoughts. There is an understood hierarchy.’ It is precisely this traditional hierarchy that the more important theorists have challenged. The critical commentator is no longer the servant of the imaginative writer. As Roland Barthes has put it, there is a need to free the critic from the role of ‘judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder’. The Author – in the sense of the ultimate authority on the works he has produced – is dead, and the reader is at last liberated from the unrewarding labour of construing the intended meaning of his texts.

The resulting situation, for Parrinder, is a version of the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice – the theorist out of control, inundating the literary workshop: ‘Theory is all-devouring, consuming theories, anti-theories and non-theories alike. Polemics against Theory [like his own, as he knows] are themselves a species of theory.’ The appearance of newly fashionable theorists becomes a seasonal event and calls for constant ideological accommodation or self-justification among established ones. The inevitable comparisons with the party line and couturier dictators are made by the dissenters. This hectic intellectual atmosphere creates a race of anxious disciples desperate to keep up. For Parrinder, the typical case is that of the ‘fleet-footed pamphleteer’ Terry Eagleton, the impact of whose work ‘has been due to the adventurism of a critic swiftly assimilating, and memorably responding to, wave after wave of neo-Marxist theory. As major influences, Sartre, Williams, Lukacs, Goldmann, Anderson, Althusser, Macherey, Benjamin, Derrida and the feminist movement have followed one another in quick succession.’

Literary theory, in this view, has become a self-contained preserve for intellectuals who talk to each other while largely ignoring the imaginative writers of their own time. The task of understanding the work of the more challenging new poets, novelists and playwrights is evaded entirely or relegated to journalists. Criticism and literary creation are less and less in touch with each other. For Parrinder, this represents a betrayal of the best traditions of critical commentary. His model is the sort of literary movement (Romanticism and Modernism are obvious examples) in which ‘there was an alliance between artistic innovation and avant-garde criticism and polemic,’ an ‘intimacy between critical and creative discourse’. The absence of such an alliance has produced ‘a “theoretical revolution” proclaimed by literary scholars most of whom seem to work in an artistic vacuum’. The close connection between theory and practice that characterised the early days of Modernism and which produced not only classic explanatory essays by the writers themselves – Eliot, Pound, Woolf and others – but also such helpful early guides to modern writing as Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry or Wilson’s Axel’s Castle has been broken. The writers themselves remain reticent and the literary theorists largely indifferent. (It might be noted in passing that such a description hardly characterises the French literary scene.)

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